Health & Human Services

Bending the Law on Slots

Gambling interests seeking permission to move into a state like to tell voters that neighboring states are already profiting from casinos and lotteries, so they...
by | November 30, 2009

Gambling interests seeking permission to move into a state like to tell voters that neighboring states are already profiting from casinos and lotteries, so they might as well cash in themselves. In Alabama, this argument is playing out a little bit differently. There, the gaming industry already has big operations, and it is telling local governments to take some of the profits--even if that means bending the law a little bit.

Most forms of gambling are banned in Alabama, but many counties allow exemptions for charitable bingo games. That has turned into an enormous loophole. Gaming companies, looking for ways to skirt the state ban on slot machines, came up with the idea of electronic bingo games. And electronic bingo has mushroomed into an enormous business in Alabama. In Walker County, just north of Birmingham, the machines have been taking in an astonishing $2 billion per year and supporting 1,000 jobs.

But an Alabama circuit judge ruled in October that the bingo machines in Walker County were simply slot machines that happened to have a bingo format. A few days later, the Birmingham city council repealed its ordinance permitting electronic bingo. "If they are slot machines," says Joe Basgier, a prosecutor in Birmingham, "anyone who possesses them is committing a crime in the state of Alabama, and they are subject to seizure."

Judges in other counties and on the federal bench have issued similar rulings. But because each county's law is different, casino operators are keeping their doors open as long as they can. It's easy to see why. The city of Fairfield, Alabama, had been running a deficit until electronic bingo exploded there over the past year. Now, permit fees and occupational and sales taxes generate $300,000 a month for the local treasury. City Attorney Michael Trucks says he's confident the casinos are legal, but he admits he's "nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs."

A county judge is expected to issue a ruling shortly on the situation in Fairfield. But both advocates and opponents of gambling expect that the Alabama Supreme Court will step in eventually and settle the issue statewide. That might be bad news for the bingo parlors. Alabama law makes it pretty clear that anything that looks or sounds like a slot machine is a slot machine. The question, says Todd Stacy, an aide to Governor Bob Riley, is "can organized gambling come into a state and try to write the law by default, because they crept in here?"

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